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Damaris Maria Grossmann: From Battle Warrior To Peaceful Warrior

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This is an interview with Damaris Maria Grossmann, a Registered Nurse, yoga therapist, and wellness educator. I met her at the 2016 World Affairs Conference at the University of Colorado, where she was invited to speak because she was “blessed to find yoga in 2006 when struggling with transitioning from the military of over 5 years in the US Navy during Global War on Terrorism.” She has vowed a life of nonviolence and to make the transition from battle warrior to peaceful warrior of the heart. She teaches veterans with the non-profit organization Team Red White and Blue, and has taught children in lower- income schools in Newark and Paterson, NJ, as well as at the Hackensack Cancer Center with the non-profit organization Kula for Karma. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate at Rutgers University, working on integrative health care for health professionals who want to lessen stress and burnout, and a Certified YogaNurse®.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

I injured my back when I was in the Navy. The injury was the result of a traumatic and emotional situation that was out of my control. I found myself alone, depressed, and living my life in pain, anger, and full of post-traumatic stress. I was introduced to yoga as movement therapy, and I was so surprised it helped. Yoga helped save my life. In my darkest moments, I learned to see the light. My motivation is to teach yoga and integrative health practices to help facilitate others’ healing, now that yoga has helped me. Yoga is whole-body medicine, and should be a part of all medicine.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

I feel rewarded when I see the way my students are able to relax and reset. I’m so thankful to see someone be successful who has struggled to relax. The mat is an opportunity for them to be in present time, and to let go in ways that help them find space to forgive themselves and others. The best part of teaching is watching the moment when a person learns the power of their breath as a way of healing and as a source of unconditional love.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

I’ve learned to be patient, and to listen to the answers within. My students also have helped me to understand the opportunity in the struggles we all face, and that we can find the best part of ourselves.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors facing the veterans you work with? In what ways does it not?

Most of the yoga classes offered in studios across the country may be inaccessible for veterans, either because the approach may be based on assumptions about the clientele that don’t apply to veterans, or simply because they are too expensive. I’m thankful to studios and non-profit organizations like Mindful Yoga Therapy and Kula for Karma that offer free classes for veterans.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

To me, the practice of mindfulness is not just about being aware of the present moment. We can use those moments to make a change in the world, because we become more mindful of the direction in which we would like our action to lead. Connecting with ourselves through mindfulness will bring both calm into our lives, and allows us to make positive change in the world.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach the veterans that you work with? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

When you teach veterans, take time to pause and observe your judgments about what they may have done in their work. Try to accept them where they are, and believe they are our best teachers. I suggest being mindful of your words, and of the transition poses. Be open and genuine, expressing any emotion, or none at all. The breath and quietness of yoga and meditation may be scary moments for veterans. Always reiterate they are here on the mat, in their breath and safe. Take the time to be aware of options and modifications of poses. Always let a group know that any amount or any pose is a beautiful pose; it’s about the time for them to listen within.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I believe yoga is a very important part of American healing! Most all of us suffer in some manner with pain or illness. My hope is that yoga will be available to all populations. Actually, one of my greatest passions is complete integrative health within hospitals, communities, and health clinics. Yoga is a way of facilitating healing for the mind-body and spirit. As a nurse veteran and yogi I have seen the impact it has had on my own health and well-being. I intend to promote yoga and wellness as a necessary part of healing in health care communities worldwide.

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Interested in helping veterans to find a calm body/mind? Learn more about Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans and join a teacher training near you.

Terri Cooper: Connection is the Cure

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TERRI COOPER IMAGE COURTESY OF DEREK KEARNEY PHOTOGRAPHY

This is an interview with Terri Cooper, who told me that in 2003, “yoga saved my life. It had such a profound impact on me. I knew immediately that I needed to share this healing practice, so I jumped into teacher training. I felt called to bring this healing practice to those would wouldn’t normally have access to it, so just three months later I started my first outreach class, and have been doing it ever since.  What started out as just a personal passion soon became Yoga Gangsters a 501c(3) not-for-profit organization, and after 13 years and 15,000 kids served we matured into Connection Coalition (that’s CoCo for short), with trainings in 25 states.  We address the symptoms of trauma and poverty through yoga, meditation, and mindfulness and train our teachers to create connection with youth in schools, jails, shelters, rehabs, and more.” 

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? 

I’ve always been motivated by the lack of access to necessary resources for communities in crisis.  We know that trauma can be healed, and we know how. Yet, there is still an enormous gap between those who need these tools and those who can easily access them. And, for me—that’s just not ok. Unfortunately, racism and classism continue to perpetuate the cycle of trauma through mass incarceration, under-resourced schools, and lack of opportunities, just to name a few.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

The connection is the most rewarding. It’s what we’re all about. Through yoga, people get to cultivate a connection between their movement and the breath. That enables them to connect to themselves in a loving and healing way.  And we all know that when we are in a challenging experience, our crazy human minds start to rip ourselves apart with “not enough-ness.”  The stretching and breathing begin to release tension, and people naturally develop mindfulness around their thoughts, and how these thoughts affect them. In this space we make the connection that ultimately, we’re all very similar and want the same things—to be happy and feel safe.  Yet our access and privilege can be wildly different, causing a major gap between those who have resources and those who don’t.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

They’ve taught me not to judge so quickly. I always ask their name and a bonus question during our sessions. One of the questions I ask is what would be your superpower? At a juvenile detention center, one student responded with shooting bullets from his finger. In that moment I could’ve judged him, but my work has taught me not to react quickly, instead to stay in an inquiry. So, I asked the child why and he responded that he wanted to stop his mom’s boyfriend from raping his little sister.  See how this illustrates that there is a relationship between trauma and violence. This is why our motto is “No blame, No shame, No judgment.”

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with at-risk youth in juvenile detention centers?    

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are proven to regulate the nervous system, and thus lead to practitioners being less reactive and more responsive. These are necessary tools when you’re caught up in a system that is flawed, biased, and sometimes even corrupt. There is an inequality that exists in this system that has created a school-to-prison pipeline, thus continuing the cycle of trauma and poverty.

Often we hear claims of yoga as a means to positively change the world. What in your mind is the relationship between a yoga practice and greater social change?

Greater social change is only possible when people with privilege and power begin to take steps to create this change.  Today, the yoga community is still overwhelmingly white and privileged.  We at CoCo encourage this community to think about how their access and privilege has allowed them to move through life, and how not having those privileges would be devastating – access to quality education, healthy food, safe environments, and the list goes on.

Through yoga, more and more leaders and decision makers are cultivating empathy. They see the systemic separation and inequality that is persistent in this country.  Our CoCo trainings facilitate a conversation around race, privilege, and power, and we weave this delicate conversation into our yoga experiences.  I look forward to the day that this dialogue and awareness will eventually lead to policy change.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

My hope is that there will no longer be a separation of yoga and service yoga. I would love to see yoga, meditation, and mindfulness as part of the normal school curriculum that all students have access to.  I also dream that one day our policy makers will have a mindfulness practice and that self-regulation will be as habitual as brushing our teeth in the morning.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Cat Lauer: How We Serve Those In Recovery

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CAT LAUER IMAGE COURTESY OF JOSLYN GRIFFIN OF GATHER IN KIN

I recently met Cat Lauer at the Hanuman Yoga Festival in Boulder, CO. She volunteer teaches free yoga classes to support recovery from addiction, trauma, and mental illness, and she is paid to teach studio classes at Old Town Yoga Studio in the historic downtown of Fort Collins, CO. Her “Yoga For Recovery” classes are designed to complement on-going therapy with physicians and mental-health therapists. Visit: catleaslauer.com/yoga-for-recovery

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work?

During the summer of 2002, I was a seva student at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. There I was exposed to yogic practices and meditation. Years later I sought help for an eating disorder; I pledged that whatever modality best served my recovery, I would work to provide the same opportunity to others. That turned out to be yoga. I began to expand on my home practice with individual sessions with a yoga therapist, then studio classes and workshops, and on to a teacher training program.

Yoga for Recovery is offered to those in recovery from addiction, trauma, and mental illness. While my recovery was from an eating disorder, the class teaches skills that address issues relevant to many recovery paths. I’ve witnessed commonalities among people in recovery, clients I met while working as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, and in my current work at a mental health and substance abuse facility.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

The most rewarding aspect of this work is to see the change in body language during practice. So far, the lesson I learn week after week in class is that all the gifts I’ve experienced while practicing yoga in recovery are also received by others. Yoga may not be the core of everybody’s recovery, but they still benefit from a simple yoga practice. Then they in turn go on to create safer, healthier communities for people who may not otherwise be able to afford a trauma-informed, inclusive studio class.

When I entered my initial yoga teacher training, I was unsure as to whether the program was to deepen my practice and further my recovery, or the first step towards teaching others in recovery. At my first practicum, I felt so very sure that I would continue on to teach others in recovery – but I had a plan consisting of years of training and fundraising to make it happen. Over time my students have taught me that grand plans might not be as important or effective as these: a clear idea of the population I wanted to serve (those in recovery seeking a yoga and/or meditation practice, who may not be able to afford a regular studio class), and how helpful free access to yoga practice is. In essence we are all practicing breathing, and movement, and moments of peace on our mats that will lead to greater compassion towards ourselves and others. In short – recovery!

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people recovering from mental illness/trauma/addiction?

There are a number of brave souls in the world advocating for the end of the social stigmas associated with mental illness, trauma, and addiction. By holding a safe place for any and all to sign in and say, yes – me, I am in recovery, I hope to support acceptance and counteract the isolation and shame surrounding these issues. Recovery is time-consuming and emotionally draining, yet few of us in recovery chat freely about such things, so we bear this burden alone .

Each class I teach is designed to be trauma-informed, includes breath-work and meditation to confront the anxiety, depression, and overwhelm that may be a part of recovery, as well as responses to society’s judgments of people in recovery. These techniques encourage us to listen to our own wise mind, practice acceptance, and move through discomfort and change to forgiveness.

Finally, there is the great healing force of connection; in class together we can celebrate practicing in community.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

My hope is that more yoga teachers will discover that they have gifts to give to others who need free access to the healing power of yoga, so I hope yoga practitioners see their own potential to give back in small ways. All it takes is noticing a need and finding one small part of one’s self that fits that need. And acting on it before one starts to question one’s ability! We all have an ability to serve, and incorporating service into our practice and our work is … exciting! Hopeful! Empowering! Fun! … And important for our communities.

As I’ve said, recovery is time-intensive and expensive. I am so grateful for donations from individuals, the Give Back Yoga Foundation, and Gaiam. My hope is that in the future more organizations—non-profit and for-profit—will continue to donate beautiful mats and props, music, and a clean, safe space easily accessed by bike, foot, public transportation or car.

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Are you interested in adding mindfulness techniques to your teaching toolkit? Explore the ways our yoga therapy and yoga service trainings can prepare you to support people in recovery.

Trina Wyatt: Striving Towards A Healthier Planet

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This is an interview with Trina Wyatt, founder of an online media streaming service called Conscious Good. When I first met Trina I told her that I felt overwhelmed by the billions of things I could watch or listen to on the Internet, much of it cluttered by advertisements I wasn’t interested in. Now that I’ve been introduced to Conscious Good, I have easy access to videos and podcasts that entertain, inspire, and inform my life.

Rob: I’m interested in the background of your yoga service career. Could you share this with us?

I’m a “Slow Growth” yogi: in my early 20s, over a period of years, well-meaning friends “dragged” me to their yoga classes. I found it pure torture and swore I would never go back. Later I noticed how healthy and happy yogis were, and I thought, “I probably hate yoga because my body so badly needs it.” That realization prompted me to give it another chance and, luckily, I found a wonderful teacher at my health club. Within a few months I was hooked and attending three classes a week. I’ve been practicing yoga regularly for over 20 years now.

My early practice was mostly Ashtanga and Hatha, but while pregnant with my first child, I pulled a back muscle. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and a friend suggested I attend Gurmukh’s prenatal Kundalini yoga class. Its benefits were huge for my daughter’s birth; however, it didn’t occur to me to continue with the practice.

Then, about four years ago, I was struggling to do yoga or meditate regularly at all. Between two kids in private schools and other financial pressures, I took a job only for the salary, and I was miserable. My office at the time just happened to be near a Kundalini yoga studio called Golden Bridge. Though I hadn’t been attending class, the studio had a little café that I frequented for lunch.

One day I noticed a five-day yoga and cleanse program and I signed up. Eventually I found a way, with my husband and children cheering me on, to take the full Kundalini teacher training. Part of the training required meditating for 11 minutes a day 40 days in a row. This was how I discovered the power of a daily practice to overcome unhealthy habits. Two months into the yoga teacher training program, I told my husband that I was going to leave my miserable job. I recall saying that I wasn’t going to be unhappy in a job ever again and that we may have to sell the house and move. Always the adventurer, he said, “Great! Where shall we go?” This is what prompted our move to Boulder, Colorado, and my eventually launching Conscious Good.

What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

One of the motivators in launching Conscious Good has been to use media and technology to help and support people in being the change they would like to see in the world. I’ve always loved going to the movies. While I was in high school my father sat me down one day and asked, “What do you think you’d like to do when you grow up?” I had just spent the summer working at a retail shop owned by two women, so I said, “I’d like to run my own business one day.” He encouraged me, and urged me to study accounting, because it’s important to know the numbers when running your own business. So I combined the two and pursued a career in finance in the motion picture industry.

In 2003, after wrapping up the first Tribeca Film Festival and completing my MBA, I thought it was time to try something new. The only thing I could think of that I loved as much as film was yoga. Since then, I’ve tried many times to move my career toward combining the two—from collaborating to create content to advising organizations that are involved in conscious media. You could say that Conscious Good has been brewing for over 13 years.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a yoga practice and greater social change?

In my experience, adopting a daily practice—be it yoga, meditation, gratitude, or prayer—and supporting that practice throughout the day with thoughts, experiences, and media that support it, helps you be the change you want to see in the world. A daily practice has the power to replace unhealthy habits or addictions with healthy habits, and by putting kindness above personal gratification, we create a ripple effect through society, thus impacting greater social change.

Conscious Good is helping people to “be the change” also through our programming. This summer, we held our first Humanitarian Film Festival. We put a call out for short films that exemplified compassion and empathy for those less fortunate. The results were extraordinary and, I believe, have real impact. As written in Psychology Today, “watching TV shows and video clips with pro-social themes (like people helping others, problem solving, cooperating and being generous) can lead to more cooperation, more positive attitudes, less aggression, and more altruism”.*

What do you think the role of brands plays in the shaping of the future of yoga? Can brands play a role in maintaining the integrity of the practice, and how are you contributing?

People vote daily with their dollars, and technology is forcing more transparency in brands. More and more people are interested in where goods come from, how they’re made and their sustainability, and how the people making them are treated. Any brand in the yoga and mindfulness space will need transparency, integrity, and authenticity to thrive. I think true yoga and authenticity are synonymous. I am contributing to maintaining the integrity by continuing to walk the talk – practicing daily, encouraging my team to do the same, bringing mindfulness to staff meetings, and giving back to conscious causes. At least to start, our plan is to donate 10% of our net profits to non-profit organizations.

Does yoga help your consumers address problems that afflict so many in society, such as body image, etc.?

Yes. My belief is that practicing yoga with spiritual authenticity creates a union with the divine; and, as we are all divine, yoga deepens the connection with ourselves. Through practice we can develop a self-love that will help us embrace our body’s imperfections and heal ourselves. At Conscious Good, we intend to offer yoga practices for every age, every body type, and every level. We need more!

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

My hope is that in 10 years more than 50% of the population is practicing some form of yoga and/or meditation. I hope that every person in the U.S. adopts a form of service to others – whether through yoga or other means, and realizes that being of service is a key component to health and happiness and to bringing about the greatest social change.

*Psychology Today January 19, 2013.

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Join us in making yoga more accessible to all. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Jodi Weiner: Showing Up For At-Risk Youth

jodi-weiner-3This is an interview with Jodi Weiner, Executive Director for the South Florida-based non-profit organization CoCo, which stands for Connection Coalition (formerly Yoga Gangsters). It provides free yoga to youth in jails, foster homes, and homeless shelters. You can learn more about CoCo yoga instructors and yoga programs here. CoCo was founded by Terri Cooper, who some folks call “the original yoga gangster.”

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

My children motivated me; I wanted to be an example my kids would be proud of. I wanted to show them that no matter who we are, we have a responsibility to step in and support those who have no community, support future leaders and innovators, and, I hope, to leave a legacy of love and giving.

How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

I’m motivated now by the children who have no voice, who are forgotten, judged, abused, or disempowered by the systems once thought to serve them. It is for the kids who crave the love they need to thrive, for the kids who have not heard the whispers of love, empowerment, and strength.

Is there a standout moment from your work with CoCo?

It was my first volunteer gig. I was kicking off our first six-week program with SOS Foster Village, and I was teaching my first class. The awakening in the eyes of the kids, the trust and opening I saw in their body language and the freedom that touched my heart after just one class, sticks with me, and drives me forward to share that awakening, that confirmation of Oneness. When you finally make eye contact with the kid who walked in with shut-down hunched shoulders too fearful to look up, it’s that moment, that awareness that these kids see you as safe. It’s truly an inspiring sensation that I hope to support others to find. Serving kids is a gift that needs to be felt to fully understand how much joy there can be in service.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

The only thing I knew about the kids was they were in some form of crisis and needed the space to just be kids, to be silly, free to be who they are. There were no assumptions. Our certification program teaches that if we assume anything about the population, we are creating disconnect. This is the very opposite of the essence of yoga! Our training teaches how to create the connection and see past the story, to see the soul.

That said, I had assumptions about my own abilities and limitations. Midway through that first class, I realized the effortless flow of connection when we give from the heart with no expectations. I recall stopping and watching the kids smile, trust, laugh and feel genuine joy in that moment, and doing my best to not fully let go into the tears of gratitude. I embodied connection so easily and I won’t ever forget that visceral experience. I was plugged in deep and it was a beautiful confirmation I was on the right path.

What stood out for me ultimately is I felt an immediate connection, not a hierarchy. I knew I had the education of trauma and the “aha” of how to serve, but I was not prepared for the fearlessness and comfort I felt.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

When working with kids, I keep it playful, loose, and open to what is needed in the moment. I meet them where they are. I tap into the energy of the room and allow the messages and teaching to come through me. What comes out is exactly what the kids’ need, unscripted and from the heart. I stay mindful of what may trigger a reactive moment for the kids. It’s a delicate balance that requires a grounded awareness. Our teacher certification teaches the volunteers to provide empowering messages while playing with the asanas and breath of yoga.

When I teach adults, I teach to balance the chakras as opposed to controlled chaos with the kids. Empowerment is always part of my teachings regardless of the population. The “studio” version is a vibrant class and I always bring a little “gangster.” My yogi chatter is more about our energy body, and also about awareness of how we show up off the mat and into the lives we live in community.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

I experience such fulfillment through service and the development of CoCo that I don’t always tend my “playtime.” To address that challenge I get down on the floor with my own kids and play with them, and spend time in nature! My kids remind me to be incredibly silly and laugh as much as I can. It keeps me motivated, for sure!

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach at-risk youth?

Have resources and a community to support you. Regardless of the population you are going to serve, prepare your own grounding energy first. When moments of challenge pop up during service you’re better equipped to move through them instead of avoiding them. Service-minded support is vital in situations like that.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

My vision for the next decade of service is to watch it grow. Once that flame of service is lit in many of us, it’s hard to ignore. I will continue to ignite and stoke those fires with the awareness of the abundance service work brings to the community, and the world as a whole. I am incredibly grateful to Off the Mat Into the World for its vision of social activism.

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Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Christine Moore: Sharing Adaptive Yoga

Adaptive Yoga with Christine MooreThis is an interview with Christine Moore, who attended her first yoga teacher training while her son was serving a second tour with the United States Navy in Afghanistan in 2009. She was inspired during that time to teach yoga to veterans, and did so for a few years at the Denver VA hospital. She now teaches yoga to inmates at the county jail in Boulder CO, and adaptive yoga to people with disabilities at Imagine Santa Fe House, a group home. (Her first love being dance, she developed a class she calls “Shimmy~Asana,” where the two ancient arts of belly dance and yoga meet.)

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? 

My motivation to teach veterans came from my desire to grasp what I might be faced with on my son’s return from his tour in Afghanistan. I drove 45 minutes each way to volunteer for an hour, and it was the highlight of my week. I left feeling lifted and inspired by students who made the effort to make it to the mat with challenges too difficult for most of us to conceive. Their passion ignited my own. I never dreamed how deeply the veterans would inspire me and motivate me to continue to learn more about yoga, adaptive yoga, and to dive deep into learning more about myself.

What keeps me motivated is the persistent reminder of how each of us, with all our differences, are really so alike in our shared humanity. I learn every time I’m with my students, not only about yoga, but about life. And I’m motivated by the constant awareness of how fortunate I am to be in the body I inhabit.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

One of my students, who is in her 40s, has Down Syndrome. She has very little use of her arm and an arthritic hand. I watch her hands unfold as she slowly brings them into Namaste. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there; the persistence and determination warms my heart. After much effort, the smile that breaks across her face when her palms touch is priceless.

If I can facilitate a person’s inner ability to have this take place, I feel rewarded and honored to witness this. If I were to describe to you the colors of a sunset, it would never be the same as seeing it with your own eyes. Sharing my yoga in this way is like that, witnessing true beauty. These beautiful people teach me to cherish and be resilient; there is little that is as gratifying as that is to me.

What are some of the things your students have taught you? 

One of my students left me with a challenge to question my motivation. She was uncomfortable in her body, and the staff at Imagine told me that she had been screaming nonstop for weeks. She seemed frightened in her wheelchair with her feet dangling in space, unable to stop the world from spinning around her. It resonated with me that this client’s proprioception was challenged. I sat across from her at eye level and grounded her feet by placing them on blocks. I looked in her eyes and gently held her knees. After a few moments she stopped screaming.

One day when I came to teach I was told she had died during the week. My grief unnerved me. I thought that I should be happy for her that she was released from a body in such pain. She had only ever shared two words with me, “yes and no,” and yet our connection felt deep and genuine. I spent several weeks examining myself, and learned a great deal about my ego, my judgments, and even my frailty in this human body.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in working with people with disabilities?

In response to this work I’ve had people say, “How does that work, how can you teach yoga to someone in a wheelchair?” I ask that same person how they find Tadasana (standing mountain pose) in their own body when they are sitting. The sensation is the same. This creates a feeling of connection rather than separateness, as it reveals our similarities and unravels what we see as division. The more people see the abilities in others, the fewer barriers there are between us all. Social misconceptions break down and we all gain from these stories. The practitioners build greater confidence and better ability to participate within society. My hope is that this allows others to see people with disabilities in a new light.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

Mindfulness helps to stimulate the prefrontal cortex (PFC), allowing us to regulate our behavior rather than responding with our primitive and reactive fight-or-flight reaction. If we can respond to others in a mindful way, we may be able to recognize the commonality between us and “the Other,” enhancing our ability to accept differences. This perception of difference was crucial to our survival in primitive times. Mindfulness enhances our ability to slow down and notice that we are safe. Empowering ourselves this way can create a huge transition in consciousness and enable social change.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach people with disabilities? What would be the most important thing for them to carry? 

Expect that everything will be different from what you imagine. Be comfortable with critical thinking. Be compassionate and patient with others, but first with yourself. Things move very slowly, so results of any kind might be subtle or unnoticeable. Have a tool box of yoga skills to dive into at any moment with confidence.

Attend workshops to learn specific techniques for adaptive yoga and trauma. Matthew Sanford’s book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence is a must-read for anyone considering this work. His teachings have been a huge inspiration for me.

We are never fully healed, yet our work supporting others comes from having processed the things that drive us to do the work. It is possible to transform judgment, fear, and loss into compassion and the enthusiasm to be present with others.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope to see yoga become more available to children and youth, and to those who do not have the financial means to easily access yoga. I hope that within the next decade it will become a required and regular practice for healing.

I have a friend who walked into her daughter’s 3rd grade class of 75 children and they were having their daily quiet meditation practice. Imagine 75 children sitting in silence. Those children’s lives and relationships will be transformed by this simple practice. The transformation has a ripple effect that can help dissipate hatred and fear. I want that for everyone! The outcome would benefit us all.

We are living in tumultuous times, and my biggest hope is that yoga will help us re-vision our relationships with self and with others.

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 Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn more about our nationwide initiative this November to give back yoga.

Jocelyn Casey-Whiteman: How We Serve Survivors of Sexual Assault

Rob Schware: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

Jocelyn: When I heard Exhale to Inhale’s mission to empower women who have experienced intimate partner violence and sexual assault to heal and reclaim their lives, I had a visceral experience of relief for women survivors. It made sense that conscious movement with breath in a safe environment would help survivors to feel ease and strength in their body, which is an important step towards healing.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

It’s good to hear a student report having a positive experience in her body, such as “feeling lighter,” after class. The moment someone finds repose and stability in a posture, and her expression softens, is beautiful.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

They’ve taught me to trust the resilience of the human spirit during dark and difficult times. They remind me to never lose hope.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the institution or population you work with? In what ways does it not?

In a trauma-sensitive class, we create a safe space in which survivors can step back into their personal power and practice, and make decisions without fear. We offer choices between which posture to practice next and how long to stay in a posture. With time, this can be a step towards the survivor strengthening her self-confidence and agency. They may or may not have such a space and opportunity at home.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

I think the more we search inside ourselves, observe our thoughts, beliefs, and habits, the greater the chance of healing the psyche’s wounds and cultivating a healthy, peaceful relationship with ourselves and the world. This requires vulnerability, compassion, and patience. It means loving and listening deeply to all the parts of oneself as they rise into consciousness, making self-care and reflection priorities, being open to change, and maintaining hope for harmony.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach in the shelters that you work with? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

Be deeply compassionate with yourself. The people I’ve met who teach or work in domestic violence shelters are extremely compassionate, giving individuals, but they are not always so generous with themselves. It’s important to check in with yourself, and to refill your well when you feel drained.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope service yoga continues to thrive and is taught wherever there’s a need. I hope yoga organizations receive funding to fully realize their mission of fostering wellbeing in the communities they serve. Since I believe everyone can benefit from yoga and mindfulness, I hope yoga is added to more and more school curriculums, so mindfulness can start early.

Originally published on The Huffington Post

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Would you like to be part of this support network? Explore our Training & Events page to learn how you can get involved by participating in a trauma-sensitive yoga training in your area, or support this work by hosting or attending a donation class.

Melissa Jhunja: Yoga for Healing, Recovery & Living

melissa-jhunjaThis is an interview with Melissa Jhunja who, as a social worker and avid volunteer, has always been drawn to service in a variety of ways. She became particularly interested in human rights and social policy as she went through a master’s program in social work, and wanted to find ways to serve those who often have their rights violated, or lack basic human rights. She heard about the Prison Yoga Project in 2012 and was immediately drawn to the idea of bringing a yoga practice into prisons as a means to heal, and to cope with the reality of life behind bars. She later began teaching veterans through Connected Warriors and later with Exhale to Inhale, which brings yoga to women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you?

Melissa: I was lucky enough to stumble upon my first yoga class about 12 years ago at a gym where I was a member, and I tried it mainly out of curiosity. As my practice continued I began to notice a profound healing effect on my body and mind. I was hooked and continued to reap emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits, largely because I had the resources to do so. I knew there were many others out there who, like me, could benefit from the healing qualities of yoga practice, but either couldn’t or wouldn’t easily find themselves stepping into a yoga studio. It felt like yoga was hidden in plain sight – how could I get others to give it a try?

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

Hearing the ways yoga has helped people shift perspective, heal injuries, relieve tension, and calm the mind. I like hearing these first-hand stories from my students, especially those who hesitated the most initially. I like to see them returning again and again to share their experiences with me and with others, and to continue to deepen their practice.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

They taught me that I am always a student – I learn so much from them! They’ve shown me how strong and resilient one can be in the face of adversity, trauma, hardship, and pain. They teach me to never judge a book by its cover, and that yoga is for everyone.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the institution or population you work with?

Yoga is freedom despite physical incarceration for the prison populations who learn to find liberation within. For the women I teach through Exhale to Inhale, yoga is freedom to reconnect with their bodies, breath, and minds in a positive way. They reframe prolonged negative associations, allowing them to continue to move forward in the healing process with a more powerful sense of self and choice. Yoga reconnects the women I serve with mind and body in a positive way, despite the stress life can bring.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?

If we can relate to our own minds in a more clear and open, respectful and curious way we can relate to others in the same manner. In this type of practice we begin with ourselves, building up this “muscle” of being more mindful in our own daily lives, such that it gains strength and radiates outwards to other aspects of our experiences.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach in the shelters that you work with? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

If I could pack a “bag” to teach in the shelters, I think the most important element would be an open mind. The key is putting the “teacher” hat away and switching to a facilitator role; empathy and humility are some of the essentials.

The women I work with do not need a perfect asana class. They need the freedom of choice to connect with their bodies, to befriend their breath, and re-friend their mind. That said, they really each need something different, as they are all individuals. I would advise someone about to teach in a shelter to expect nothing, and to stay fully present with each student, in each moment. If you create a safe and empowering space first and foremost, then everything else will follow.

Success in these roles is not about how much they liked the sequencing in a class, but about the tools they take with them. If students recognize and learn how to use their breath and their meditation as tools to promote their own healing, then they’ve started to connect with their own power and strength, which is the ultimate success.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope that it becomes an established part of all yoga teachers’ schedules. I hope that it is explicitly discussed as a component in all teacher trainings – the importance of giving back and karma yoga. I hope to see more yoga in unconventional places such as prisons, shelters, hospitals, veterans’ centers, and public schools, where I hope to see it reaching a broader set of students. I hope we can dispel the notion that you need a lot of time or money or a gym membership to establish and benefit from a yoga practice. I think service yoga can serve to expand and break those stereotypes and barriers. Bringing this healing and transformational practice to many more of those who never expected to step on a mat is my hope.

Originally published on The Huffington Post

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Would you like to be part of this support network? Explore our Training & Events page to learn how you can get involved by participating in a trauma-sensitive yoga training in your area, or support this work by hosting or attending a donation class.

 

Julie Fernandez: How We Serve Those Suffering Domestic Violence

Julie FernandezThis is an interview with Julie Fernandez, who knew before her yoga teacher training was over that she wanted to bring healing to young people through yoga. Through a few non-profit organizations in New York City, she started working with at-risk teenage girls and youth in trauma. Julie went on to work with the nonprofit Exhale to Inhale (ETI), teaching yoga at domestic violence shelters to empower women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Last year she moved to California and began working with a psychiatrist, helping to bring healing to his patients through breath work and yoga. She serves as ETI’s Program Manager for Southern California.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

I was initially motivated to do this work when I saw the impact it had on me, a survivor of sexual assault, and I could no longer bear the idea of children and youth suffering in the ways that I did. I spent my entire adolescence suffering from depression, complex trauma, abuse, and eating disorders, as well as the accompaniments, including shame, self-loathing, and feeling stuck in a body that I felt could not ever serve me. I decided I certainly had to try to relieve some of the pain of hurting children and youth, and provide a small piece of hope.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

To see a sense of peace and calm on the student’s faces and body language. To see them believe in themselves again and find hope for their own recovery and healing. When students return, that’s a clear sign that things are shifting for them.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

My students have taught me resiliency. When they walk through the door, they exhibit courage, strength, and willingness. They are a constant reminder of our capacity to overcome our challenges.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the institution or population you work with?

Unfortunately, domestic violence survivors are not only left with physical and emotional damage, but are also faced with a plethora of societal challenges. These include socio-economic disadvantages, poor housing, discrimination, and a lack of social support, which often leads to more mental and physical health issues. Yoga has been proven to reduce many of the symptoms of trauma, including anxiety and depression, and to help people become healthier and stronger.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness, and greater social change?

Mindfulness allows us to be fully present and bring awareness to our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, as well as to what is happening outside our bodies all around us. So much about yoga is learning how to respond, rather than react; it teaches us to pause and bring awareness to any situation. Mindfulness increases our capacity to empathize and connect with others; this connection is the foundation of social change.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach in the shelters in which you work? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

My advice for anyone who is going to teach in shelters or communities of trauma survivors is self-care first. It is so important to take care of yourself, so that you are fully equipped to help others, and give them the 100% that they deserve. And for those of us who are survivors ourselves, I urge them to get the support they need—whether through a community or therapist —so that they work on their own healing to avoid being triggered themselves. Finally, we must be mindful, and open to feedback.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope that it continues to be more accepted as a tool for healing, and that there will be more access to free yoga for those who cannot afford it.

Originally published on The Huffington Post

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Would you like to be part of this support network? Explore our Training & Events page to learn how you can get involved by participating in a trauma-sensitive yoga training in your area, or support this work by hosting or attending a donation class.